Documentary filmmakers have long complained that the rules employed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ nonfiction branch are capricious to the extreme of being incomprehensible. Take, for instance, the peculiar example of Scared Straight!, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1978—even though the film isn’t feature-length, since it runs only 58 minutes, and even though it was made for television rather than for theatrical release. Scared Straight! is a noble and powerful project, but why it merited Academy consideration is a mystery. In any event, the iconic film captures an encounter between teenaged juvenile delinquents and grown-up prison inmates. The criminals, incarcerated at New Jersey’s Rahway State Prison, comprise a social-action group called the Lifers, and at the time the film was made, the Lifers regularly met with at-risk youths to “scare them straight” with horror stories about life behind bars. (As narrator Peter Falk informs viewers, the Lifers were collectively serving over 1,000 years in prison.)
Scared Straight! begins with brief vignettes depicting the teenagers, who arrogantly proclaim their indifference toward victims and share their plans to become career criminals. Then, with the resounding slam of a metal door, the kids are stuck in a visiting room with the Lifers, who barrage them with graphic descriptions—and graphic language. The film’s constant torrent of four-letter words is mostly significant because Scared Straight! was broadcast on television uncensored; considering that the Lifers’ various remarks about anal rape are still quite startling, one can only imagine how harsh the material sounded to viewers in 1978. Scared Straight! collapses a three-hour visit into less than one hour of screen time, so the intensity level of the interaction between the Lifers and the teenagers is slightly jacked up from reality. That said, the terrified looks on the faces of the kids seem absolutely genuine.
In one particularly harrowing scene, a criminal pulls a young man from his chair in order to simulate the process of adopting a new inmate as a “kid.” (In modern parlance, the role would be called “bitch.”) Then, just instants after agreeing to provide sexual favors in exchange for protection, the new “kid” is “sold” to another inmate. “When you look at us,” one of the Lifers says to the teenagers, “you should see yourselves.” As evidenced by the creation of several foll0w-up specials and by the duplication of the Lifers’ program in other prisons, the encounter largely achieved the desired results, so Scared Straight! belongs to that special class of nonfiction films with measureable positive effects in the outside world. And while the movie was never designed to be entertainment, per se, it’s an arresting experience—no pun intended.
Scared Straight!: GROOVY